GOP Oklahoma Senate Hopeful Triggers Debate

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Monday, 05 May 2014 02:33 PM

By Melanie Batley

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The Oklahoma GOP Senate primary to replace retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn is drawing interest across the party because of the candidacy of T.W. Shannon, a member of the influential Native American tribe, Chickasaw Nation.

The 36-year-old former state House speaker, who is also black, has become the subject of debates centered on identity politics, while donations of tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign from the Chickasaws and other tribes has drawn attention to the ascendancy and influence of Native Americans in politics, The New York Times reported.

Some in the party have been quick to embrace Shannon as an emblem of Republican diversity, while others have used his candidacy to revive deep-seated reservations about citizenship and identity.

Sarah Palin, for example, told a rally of supporters for Shannon last month, "The Democrats accuse us of not embracing diversity? Oh, my goodness, he is — he's it. He is the whole package," according to the Times.

By contrast, a GOP supporter of Shannon's main opponent, Rep. James Lankford, took the opposite approach.

"Btw, the Indians aren't Oklahomans," Robert Dan Robbins, a rancher, wrote on his Facebook page. "They are a member of their own nation and are suing the state of Oklahoma over water rights and other things as well."

A tea party group wrote in an open letter, "He has too many masters to serve," listing "Indian tribes" and GOP Rep. Tom Cole, a fellow Chickasaw, among them.

For his part, Shannon is uneasy about being pigeonholed and is cautious about discussing his background, according to the Times.

"I'm an American first, and that's the most important thing," Shannon told the Times, but said he was "very proud" of his heritage.

If Shannon wins the primary and is elected in November, he will be Oklahoma's first black senator and the second ever enrolled tribal member to join the Senate. A poll released in early February showed Shannon trailing Lankford by 36 percentage points but it remains to be seen how the big money Shannon is receiving from Native Americans will affect the race.

"Most people didn't worry about the Indians in part because they were everywhere, they sort of looked like everybody else, they sort of lived like everybody else," Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor, told the Times. "Nobody cared about Native Americans until they got money."

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